The Poet As A Child Of War: An Interview With Pantea Amin Tofangchi

Pantea Amin Tofangchi

Pantea Amin Tofangchi is an award-winning Iranian-American poet. She is also a pacifist–a hopeful one. Her hope and pacifism, even now–especially now–is born of a childhood to which most U.S.-born Americans can’t relate: amid war. 

Tofangchi, who grew up during the Iran-Iraq War (from September 1980 to August 1988), certainly isn’t mad that Americans have no concept of what her childhood was like–fighting out the front door of her home, looking on nervously as her mother, mid-bomb raid, wraps a blanket around a flashlight to suppress its beam before guiding her children to safety–but she won’t suffer our sustained obliviousness either. 

Nor should she.

This is what makes Tofangchi’s debut poetry book “Glazed with War” (Mason Jar Press, 2023) not just an important read, but a necessary one right now. The collection reveals exactly what a child’s life is like amid the depravity of war through the kind of fearsome and fascinated details only a kid would observe: a mangled male genital organ lying on the ground, a teacher angered by her innocent questions on God, autumn’s persistent arrival, mid-conflict.

I sat down with Tofangchi to discuss how and why “Glazed with War” took two decades to come to fruition and how maintaining one’s hope in times like these is truly an act of courageous subversion…

In your book debut reading, you stated that it took you twenty years to write this collection…

It took me twenty years to write this book–maybe even more than that–because I was in senior high when the war ended, and when I started writing about it, I was in my thirties. So, yeah. I didn’t want to write about the war… at all.

But you did. And your collection is chronological. Did you write it that way?

I did not write it chronologically. Well, I tried to do that, but no… it didn’t happen. Because once I set up that routine of, “Ok, I’m going to wake up every morning, read a William Stafford poem, and then I’m going to write,” a memory would spark [a new idea], and then I would write. Some of the poems were in an order, but then I’d have to pause myself and think, “Wait a minute, this didn’t happen first. This happened first.”  Then, I thought, “I’m just going to write and then I can reorder it.”

How did you get into that “space” to write these poems? Some of them are devastating. 

I think more than “some of them” are devastating. To me, all of them are devastating. [The war] was a subject I did not want to enter, but once I was in that space, it was–in a way–hard stopping. 

One of my favorite poems is “Cartoon Time” because it has a part where you [as a child] are mad that the bombings are interrupting your cartoons. It’s devastating too–because you’re in the middle of a war–but it’s actually kind of funny, in a really twisted way. How did you get into that headspace?

I wish…

(the sound of anti-aircraft guns were loud, so I started to yell)

can’t they just bomb 

in the mornings?


Actually, that was not very difficult. You have to remember, my entire childhood was then and there, and also all the other people–my friends that I knew–had the same experience. So, to me, back then, my childhood was not not normal; it was very normal, because I didn’t see anything else. I started realizing what a twisted, difficult childhood I had–and how traumatized I was–around the time I started writing [the collection]. 

Does it ever make you frustrated that nobody here [in America] could possibly understand what your childhood was like?

Every day. I actually had my children sit down and I explained [what my childhood was like] to them, which was difficult. I had to think about it for a few minutes: Should I do it? Should I not do it? But then I said, “Listen, guys, while you’re complaining about a certain toy that you do not have and you wanted, I’m going to tell you about my life. And I want you to realize this was my life, but it’s a lot of other kids’ [lives] today–in this world. So… stop being obnoxious; be grateful.”

You also talked about in your reading… just the concept of “hope” right now. Can you speak on that? I don’t have a specific question here. I was just reading your collection and thinking–

How do you have hope? 

Yeah! That’s exactly what I’m asking. 

You know, maybe the fact that I have children, maybe part of me has to believe [in being hopeful, in hope], but if I’m being realistic, if you asked me that question ten years ago, I would have probably had another answer. Especially when you realize that every war–all the wars that are going on right now, and will go on forever–it’s all about money. It’s about selling guns, and it’s about how to sell more. And in order to sell more, you have to have an enemy. And in order to have an enemy, you sometimes have to create an enemy. But to stay hopeful, I like to think that there are more people who see the reality of [war] for children, at least, and things will change. 

War is a necessity 

to sell guns. 

They are calculated, measured

precisely like beehives

Do you want your children to read your collection? 

I read it to them. And, well, they got sad, but you saw them [at the reading] and they asked questions. And they couldn’t stop themselves. And Dena [Tofangchi’s daughter] said, “Mommy, I had a lot more questions.” And I said, “Do you want to ask me now?” And she said, “No, because I don’t have the microphone.”

Another one of my favorite poems is “Religious Studies” because, in it, you ask your teacher: “Where does God come from?” And then you write: 

She looked at me

with a thick white silence

don’t ever ask that question of anybody!

What a great revelation about God, about adults from a child’s perspective. Do you have a favorite poem? 

My favorite poem is the second from the last (“The War and the Turquoise”). I feel like this poem is when the war hit me as a reality, when I was finishing school. And I remember, around that time, I wanted to be someone who can change the world. And I love it when you’re that age and you believe you can actually do it. 

Yeah, sure. That makes sense. Because you’re not jaded or cynical yet.

That was actually my “prime of hope.” 

How are you not cynical though, going through all that since eight and you’re still–how old are you [in the poem “The War and the Turquoise”]? Are you a teenager?

I am eighteen, seventeen–

They followed me: 

Death, bombs, missiles, fear and the needless sense of luckiness,

lucky to be alive, lucky to have a roof,

lucky that I am not the person next to me

And you were still hopeful? 

Yeah. I had my entire future ahead of me, because university is about to start and that’s when I know what I’m going to do [with my life]. But, heck, I’m fifty and I still don’t know what I’m going to do… when I grow up.

That makes two of us.

But there is that innocence, that immaturity, that I envy. Maybe that’s why I like this poem so much. 

Why are a few parts of the poems written in Farsi? 

There were more than that, originally. I tried to change the ones that significantly changed the poem if you don’t know what it says.

So these parts of the poems are only for your fellow Iranians?

Yeah. Like this one here [Tofangchi points to a word in Farsi from the poem, “The Round Window”] is “tangerine when it comes out in season,” because, back then, even in America, you could only have fruits that were in season. So, when you’d see the tangerines come out in the market, it literally meant the fall is here. So, I have a few of those [words in Farsi]; I guess having them made me feel more connected to my roots, if you will. 

The smell of نارنگی نوبر

the sound of a teaspoon dancing

in the large teacup

Yeah, sure. You talk about in [“The Round Window”] and other poems that you can see yourself–that you’re looking at yourself–as opposed to just narrating it. So, did you see yourself moving around as you wrote the poems? 

Yes, in a lot of them I could see myself. Clearly.

So that’s how you went about writing them? Like you wrote about seeing yourself finding a “male genital organ” on the ground [in the poem “Manhood”], which was great because of its imagery and then you ask, “Will humankind continue or not?” And then you’re basically like, “Well, not with that guy.”


a male genital organ.

it was obviously not a sign

of humankind’s end

but, perhaps it was.

[Speaking on how she sees herself versus how the rest of the world views her] It hit me one time, as I had a conversation–I cannot quite remember who it was with–but it made me realize, oh my God, a lot of people look at me as “Middle Eastern”–from that “unwanted” part of the world. Nobody cared [about our wars]. Nobody cares, even today. We’re just civilians to that path of freedom for everyone else, if you will. 

Doesn’t that make you want to, I don’t know, punch Americans?


Oh right, you’re a pacifist. 

I’m a very peaceful person.

What do you want readers to understand about your collection after having read it? 

I am hoping that this book will give some perspectives on how civilians, children, and normal human beings who have no parts in the war or the politics creating it, are getting affected by it. Social media has made everything look so normal; we browse through the most devastating scenes on our phone because we are so used to it. But we watch the journey of an onion from peeling to caramelization for an hour. We are led to believe it is okay and normal that the Middle East and [developing countries] live in war and terror. This is my story. It was my life. and I was and am the lucky one. Here in the U.S., we live a “privileged” life, separate from the rest of the world. We are obsessed with superlatives: ‘the best, the highest, the most…’ We talk about guns and weapon as our ‘rights’ and then basic human rights like healthcare as a ‘privilege.’

I asked you before if you had hope… but I didn’t ask you what you are hopeful about. What are you hopeful about? 

I don’t think I have any choice other than being hopeful; I think hope is like happiness–I wake up every day and I decide to be happy and hopeful. I hope to teach my kids kindness. One time, one of the children asked me why wars happen and why people start wars. I explained wars used to be about survival–the war between humans and animals and, eventually, humans against each other because of food. ‘These days, though, it is different,’ I said, and I thought to myself: they are too young for me to explain it’s all about selling weapons and humans’ life has no meaning to politicians, and especially the U.S. weapons industry. Instead, I said, “Do you think any pure and kind person would want to start a war and kill people?” They both said no. And I said, “There you go; that is what we are lacking. Kindness!”


Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.